The mayor of Barcelona said 460 people had been injured after Spanish police in riot gear stormed polling stations to prevent Catalonia’s independence referendum from going ahead on Sunday.
Although many Catalans managed to cast their ballots in the poll, which the Spanish authorities have declared illegal, others were forcibly stopped from voting as schools housing ballot boxes were raided by the national police.
The large Ramon Llull school in Barcelona was the scene of a sustained operation, with witnesses describing police using axes to smash their way in, charging the crowds and firing rubber bullets.
Catalonia’s pro-independence regional government, which has pressed ahead with the referendum despite implacable opposition from the Spanish state, said hundreds of people had been injured. Spain’s interior ministry said 11 police officers had been hurt and three people arrested for disobedience and assaulting officers.
The Catalan health ministry said 216 people were hurt in Barcelona, 80 in Girona, 64 in Lleida, 53 in Terres de l’Ebre, 27 in Catalunya central and 25 in Tarragona. The two most seriously injured were in hospitals in Barcelona.
The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, told crowds the “police brutality will shame the Spanish state for ever”, while the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, demanded an end to the police actions and called for the resignation of the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.
Artur Mas, the former Catalan president whose government staged a symbolic independence referendum three years ago, also called for the “authoritarian” Rajoy to stand down, adding that Catalonia could not remain alongside “a state that uses batons and polic brutality”.
However, Enric Millo, the most senior Spanish government official in the region, said the police had behaved “professionally” in carrying out a judge’s orders.
Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the Spanish deputy prime minister, echoed the position, saying the police had shown firmness, professionalism and proportionality in the face of the “absolute irresponsibility” of the Catalan government.
She called on Puigdemont to drop the “farce” of the independence campaign, saying Spain had long since emerged from the authoritarian shadow of the Franco dictatorship.
“I don’t know what world Puigdemont lives in, but Spanish democracy does not work like this,” said Sáenz de Santamaría. “We have been free from a dictatorship for a long time and of a man who told us his word in the law.”
By late on Sunday afternoon, the Spanish interior ministry said police had closed 79 of the 2,315 polling stations set up for the referendum. Earlier in the day, the Catalan government had reported that voting was taking place in 96% of polling stations.
Jesús López Rodríguez, a 51-year-old administrator, had taken his family to vote at the Ramon Llull school on Sunday morning. Like thousands of Catalans, they began queuing from 5am. Three hours later, he saw seven national police vans arrive full of officers in riot gear.
“They told us that the Catalan high court had ordered them to take the ballot boxes and that we needed to disperse,” he told the Guardian. “We chanted, ‘No! No! No!’, and then about 20 police officers charged us. It was short – only about two minutes – but we stayed together.”
After about 15 minutes, eight or nine more police vans appeared and officers began cordoning off the surrounding streets and arresting people, López Rodrígue said.
“They dragged them out violently. We stood our ground but they kept dragging people away, kicking them and throwing them to the ground.”
More police arrived and jumped over the school fence to enter the building to look for ballot boxes. After using axes to break down the doors of the school, they emerged with the boxes.
López Rodríguez said that at about 10.25am, police began shooting rubber bullets – “at least 30 or 40”.
He fled the shots with his wife and children, returning to their flat opposite the school. “I feel really angry about it,” he said, “but I also hope people in Europe and around the world will see what’s happening in Catalonia.”
Similar scenes were reported elsewhere. Riot police smashed the glass doors of the sports centre near Girona where Puigdemont had been due to vote. Despite forcing their way in, they failed to stop the Catalan president voting. Pictures showed him casting his ballot in nearby Cornella del Terri.
The day started peacefully and hopefully in polling stations across the region. Hundreds of people started queuing outside the Cervantes primary school in central Barcelona from well before dawn.
“I’m here to fight for our rights and our language and for our right to live better and to have a future,” said Mireia Estape, who lives close to the school. One man in the queue, who did not wish to be named, said he had come because “Catalans need to vote; they’re robbing us in Spain. Spain has lost 22 colonies. Today it’s going to lose another,” he said.
Another would-be voter said simply: “I don’t want to live in a fascist country.”
Many Catalans saw their wishes fulfilled in polling stations as officers from the regional force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, hung back. Joaquín Pons, 89, was delighted to have cast his ballot, as he had done in the symbolic referendum three years ago.
“Last time it was cardboard ballot boxes,” he said. “This time they were real. It was very emotional.” Pons said he felt Catalans had had little choice but to proceed unilaterally.
“It would have been nice if we could all have stayed together in Spain but the Madrid government has made it impossible. It’s sad but that’s the way it is.”
News and images of the police operation travelled quickly through the crowds in Barcelona and elsewhere, adding to an already uneasy atmosphere.
On Sunday afternoon, FC Barcelona announced that its Spanish league game against Las Palmas would be played without fans at the city’s Nou Camp stadium. In a statement, the club condemned the attempts to prevent Catalans “exercising their democratic rights to free expression” and said the professional football league had refused to postpone the game.
Sunday’s violence came less than 24 hours after the Spanish government had appeared confident that enough had been done to thwart the vote.
On Saturday, Millo said police had sealed off 1,300 of the region’s 2,315 polling stations, while Guardia Civil officers acting on a judge’s orders had searched the headquarters of the Catalan technology and communications centre, disabling the software connecting polling stations and shutting down online voting applications.
“These last-minute operations have allowed us to very definitively break up any possibility of the Catalan government delivering what it promised: a binding, effective referendum with legal guarantees,” he said.
“That’s what the Catalan government had promised to deliver on 1 October. Today, we can assure people that it will not go ahead.”